An article on grist caught my attention because it reminded me that “lacto-fermentation” is the proper term for what I have been referring to as “wild fermentation”. By this process lactobacillus create acid as a by-product of consuming the sugar present in brined vegetables. The salt of the brine gives the lactobacilli a head start on other micro-organisms (like yeast and mold) that otherwise would cause the food to become unpalatable or even dangerously inedible. I have used this process three times now to make dill pickles and a couple times to make sauerkraut but cucumbers and cabbage are very popular, mainstream choices for natural fermentation. Hot peppers, I think, are a bit more daring.
That being said this is a very easy and approachable recipe. I know that when a lot of North Americans read the words “fermented” and “sauce” so close together they can’t help but think of those (I think, excellent) fish-based concoctions which “taste better than they smell”. This is not the case here. Even while fermenting the peppers smell grassy, spicy, and well, peppery. Compared to a crock of fermenting cucumbers and especially a container of fermenting cabbage the peppers are a breeze.
I visited the farmers’ market at Mel Lastman Square a couple week ago and picked up a variety of hot peppers. Pickings were slim for small, red peppers back in September so I bought a pint of the (still quite hot) yellow banana peppers. I knew that I wasn’t going to strain out the pepper flesh, skins, and seeds from the sauce and wanted more flavour than just killer heat for my sauce so my objective was to have the banana peppers act as filler and contrast for the hotter, smaller peppers.
After washing the peppers I wedged them tightly into two litre-size Mason jars. Into both jars I poured a 5% brine solution to cover the peppers–I needed about a litre of water plus 50 grams of salt. The “shoulders” of the standard (not wide-mouth) Mason jars and the tight fit combined to keep the peppers below the level of the brine. I covered the mouth of both jars with a clean dish cloth affixed with an elastic and stashed them in a cool, dark place. I’ve come to believe that covering a fermentation container is essential. I can’t explain why because I know that the vegetables and the container aren’t totally sterile to begin with but this step seems to inhibit moldy scum.
I checked on the fermenting peppers after seven days. For the first time I realised what fermentation recipes mean when they say to look for bubbling to stop as an indication that fermentation is complete; I could see tiny bubbles surfacing in one of the jars every twenty seconds or so. These were only visible because the Mason jars are clear glass and were on a counter in full sunlight. I have no idea how I could be expected to detect this under different conditions (like in the dark-colour lined crock I use for pickles). After another four days (eleven total) the fermentation was complete. I think next time I’ll speed up the fermentation by using a weaker brine closer to the 3.6% that the gentleman in this youtube video suggests as he makes fermented hot sauce to the stylings of Mr. James Brown. (He’s in the second half of the video–the first is an excellent run-down of select hot pepper varieties–and if, like me, you can’t stand his pretentiously stoner voice just skip to 4:28 of the clip when the recipe is displayed in text on the screen). This guy is even more out there than Clifton Middleton of tomato seed saving fame.
As far as hot sauce recipes go this is relatively simple after the fermentation ends. Just de-stem the pickled peppers (sorry), blitz in a blender with some vinegar and brine, bottle, and refrigerate. To the peppers I ended up adding a cup of white, distilled vinegar and half a cup of brine. The litre Mason jar (four cups) is about eighty-five percent full so I probably had just over two cups of fermented, pureed peppers.
Hot peppers have not done well in the garden at the cottage. Unfortunately, I tend to treat them as an after-thought because they are the last plants to go in the garden. By the time the soil temperature reaches what it needs to be (usually the middle to end of June) most of the space has been allocated. I’ve tried placing the pepper plants between tomato plants and this looks like it is going to work until early July rolls around and because the tomatoes have been in the ground for more than a month they can better take advantage of the increased heat, put on a growth spurt (also because tomatoes are just genetically taller plants), and steal most of the sun from the peppers. Next year I’m going to put the hot peppers in pots like we have done (with great success) with the eggplants and zucchini this year. Making a hot sauce like this seems like a great way to extend the usefulness of a crop that ripens all at once in late September.
This sauce is really hot. And I knew it was going to be that way when I was de-stemming and pureeing the peppers because I have an odd pseudo-allergic reaction to hot peppers. When I eat spicy food my scalp tingles and itches–the same thing happens when I cut the grass–but with this process I didn’t even have to taste the sauce for the reaction to kick in–just the smell was enough. Also, I know it’s a natural reaction for cooks to test a blender creation by peeling the lid off of the blender and poking their nose in for a whiff. Don’t do this. The potent combination of vinegar and fermented peppers sent me reeling across the kitchen in a minute-long coughing fit. Think pepper spray. The unpleasantness was only because of the agitation in the confined space of the blender. I tasted the sauce on some bread and it is great. There is a lot of heat but also the fruity, pepper flavours that I wanted and a lingering, complex aftertaste that the fermentation contributes.
Fermented Hot Sauce
- 1 pint yellow banana hot peppers
- 1/2 pint assorted hot peppers
- 1 small head garlic, cloves separated, peeled, and lightly smashed
- 40 grams kosher salt
- 1 L filtered water
- 1 cup distilled white vinegar
Note: The only quantities given which need to be exact are those that determine the ratio of salt to water in the brine. Make enough brine to cover the peppers completely in whatever container you use and use enough vinegar to thin the sauce as much as you like.
Another Note: Whenever natural fermentation is desired water straight from the tap should be avoided. It may have too much chlorine, though I have in the past (absentmindedly) used Toronto’s tap water without a problem. Non-municipal water is probably best (so long as it’s safe to drink), filtered tap water is good, and in a pinch you can leave the required amount of tap water standing in a wide-mouthed container for half an hour so that the chlorine will evaporate. I don’t know about bottled or distilled but it seems to me that if you’re considering using a litre of Evian for your naturally-fermented hot sauce you’re probably on the wrong website.
Clean the peppers. Trim any significant bruised or discolored spots. Prepare the 4% brine by dissolving 40 grams of kosher for every litre of water. Stuff peppers and peeled cloves of garlic into two Mason jars, or other suitable containers. Carefully pour brine into containers so that peppers are submerged.
Cover and store in a cool, dark space for one to two weeks. Check the containers periodically, remove any scum. Watch for bubbling to cease.
To handle the pickled peppers wear gloves, use a dishwasher-safe cutting board, and work slowly and in batches. My earlier allusion to pepper spray was only half-joking.
After two weeks or once bubbling has finished the peppers are ready to be processed. Remove them from the jars and drain, reserving the brine. Cut off the stem ends and very roughly chop the peppers. Working in batches (I needed two for the amount of peppers I had) puree the peppers and garlic in a blender with just enough white vinegar to get them moving. You can add more vinegar later but, obviously, can’t take any away. Once all of the peppers have been pureed return to blender, add 1/2 cup of brine, and the rest of the white vinegar. Blend until homogeneous. Add more vinegar if you desire a thinner sauce.
Bottle and store in the refrigerator. Other sources claim this sauce will last a year in the refrigerator.